The air darkened and pushed down on the glass windows of the car as soon as the boys reentered the neighborhood. Even the engine had enough: it died as soon as the boys were within sight of the front door, with a sigh that sounded as though a thousand souls had exhaled exasperation.
Bradley found that he was holding thin air. The book had disappeared again.
Thankfully, the priests’ van was still in the driveway. There was no one in it, no one roaming the streets, no dogs or cats stalking the sidewalks or scampering in the garden. It was as though all of nature had rejected the house, as though all light were being eaten by the faint glow from the dining room.
The boys jumped out of the car, just in time to hear the girl screaming, just in time to hear another voice talking over hers with acid that seemed to melt into shadows.
“He left you!” was the growl, “He left you to go to your brother because you are not his true child!”
Another scream came from the girl, this time rattling the windowpanes. The houses were large and sprawling in this neighborhood, but most of the fences were loose, if not altogether ceremonial. The boys wondered why no one had heard the noise, or had attempted to approach the house. Truth be told, they were glad that no one was listening in.
Bradley switched on his recorder and opened the front door. Behind him, Landon held up two cameras, eyes toggling between the footage and heat sensors.
The boys found the priests and the doctor praying in the living room across the hall, and the girl seated on a chair in the dining room. Her hair was damp, a dull yellow that made her now gray skin even more ashen. Her eyes were closed, her mouth was open, and from it poured both a scream and the growling, acrid voice.
“He left you all,” came out, part roar, part hiss, “He cares only for the one person that was truly faithful, truly his flesh and blood.”
Behind the girl, the mother sobbed into her palm, tears mingling with rosary beads.
Landon switched to wireless internet on his cameras. He held his breath, muttering, “Streaming,” as the yellow and white icon on the upper left corner signaled that he had made contact with the Vatican.
He looked quickly to his right and found Bradley there, holding a thumb up. It was the signal that the audio recorder was streaming too. Landon could hear conversations over the stream; the voices were muffled, but he guessed that Fr. Anthony and a team of priests were listening, observing, taking notes, and backing up their files. They were probably scrutinizing the head exorcist as well.
“When did it start?” Landon whispered to the nearest priest, who was holding his rosary beads to his chest.
“Fifteen, twenty minutes ago,” The priest answered.
The priest thought a while, then breathed, letting out both a sigh and a shrug, “She was sitting at the table, and she asked for her father,” the priest paused, as the prayers heightened across the hallways, in an effort to drown out the screams coming from the girl, “I think her mother told her that her dad went to the hospital. Then she tackled her mother. We all had to pull them apart.”
The boys took their places next to the rest of the priests and watched the session from a distance, recorders up, eyes alert. They dared not come closer, not even when the girl seemed to calm down, or when the air seemed to lighten.
The break itself was anything but a single, focused point. It was an island surrounded by ferocious waves, they remembered their uncle saying: it would be hours, even days, before the exorcist and the victim could make it to shore. In the meantime, they would be tossed to and fro on a rough sea that tested both patience and stamina. They would be closer to the end, then far away, then closer once again, almost all at the same time.
They needed to keep at it, to sail, to ram against the ship of nails, if Bradley were to be asked.
“Where’s Dr. Brown?” Landon whispered to the priest again, as the exorcist’s voice suddenly emerged from what felt like a wall of silence.
“He left right after you did,” the priest answered, “We tried calling him. Couldn’t get a hold of him.”
Landon and Bradley looked sharply at each other above their devices. Bradley had gone pale; the last time a doctor or psychiatrist had left the session at the wrong time, they couldn’t get out of bed for days. It was as though something kept them in their room, something that knew how to blend arthritis, the flu, and muscle fatigue, all with the right strength to discourage, but not kill. All consultations after the attack would almost always come from the man’s bedside, through a crackling phone line that kept going dead. Only after Fr. Anthony came to bless the man’s house could the doctor or psychiatrist get up and go to work again – as though nothing at all had happened.
“Where does he live?” Bradley said, as the prayers resumed, and as the priests bowed to their rosaries.
“Not sure,” the doctor whispered, after a long string of prayers from the exorcist, followed by a long scream from the girl, “I know he works at the psych ward in General, but I really don’t know anything else. His file’s in the box.”
The doctor gestured with his head to the couches behind them, where the team had parked its requisite folders and boxes. The boxes had extra changes of clothes, theological books, and backup storage and equipment. It was dangerous to simply lug the boxes around, but there was no central space to put them. The team usually kept the boxes in a van, or in a hotel room, or at the local convent or seminary. For some reason, everything that had never been done before – or for that matter, everything that was outside protocol, on hindsight – kept coming to light in those scream-filled minutes of the exorcism, as Bradley looked closer at everything they had done.
He felt careless, even useless, as though he had reneged on a promise he did not even remember making.
“That’s right, little boy,” pierced out of the session, past the priest’s prayers, across the grinding chill of the house, “So many little things! So many little details! Look at them and you’ll find that you are all so lost!”
Landon glared at his brother and gave a sharp shake of his head. It was his signal that Bradley should pray. Bradley truly was, but half-heartedly, and by his own quick admission and apology. The psychiatrist’s files were tempting him to stop and look, all under the pretense that his aim was to help someone who was potentially in trouble.
“He’s probably home reading Playboy right now!” Came the screech, then the giggle, from what was now a silky, smarmy voice within the girl, “Or he’s watching, which is even better! I can show you what he’s doing, and we can all help him out if you like.”
This time, Fr. Callahan was not distracted. He closed his eyes, raised the crucifix up, and brought it down gently to hover over the girl’s head.
“Begone, tempter of souls,” he spoke, solemn, firm, almost effortless as he pushed the girlish voice out of the way, loud as he spoke through clouds of frost that issued from his mouth, “In the name of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood saved us from eternal damnation, whose sacrifice saved us from the ravages of sin, whose death on the Cross opened the Gates of Heaven and brought forth the promise of life Eternal.”
The girl snickered, whimpered, then growled like a cornered dog. Around her rose frost, in thin clouds. Landon looked at his brother, and saw Bradley mumbling a prayer, but no less observant of, even amazed at what was going on.
“In the name of the Holy Ghost, who breathed the Word made flesh into the pure vessel that was the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven,” the prayer continued, and paused, as the emphasis on the Virgin Mary made the girl struggle against her holds, and growl resentment against what seemed to be a growing wall of prayer, “In the name of our God, who created the Heavens and the Earth, and all that is above it, and all that is under it, and all that live in it. In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, I command you to tell me your name!”
Knowing the name of a demon subjugated it to the exorcist, as the vessel for higher powers. It would sometimes take days to extract a demon’s name, and even more days to weaken the being further so that it revealed all the names of the demons with which it resided. Sometimes, the names came in an instant, and the demons left, which was common for minor cases for which the demonic horde had given up its lowest ranked creatures.
That evening, nearing the break, the boys sensed that a name was about to come, but they tried not to hope too much.
“My name?” came from the girl, as a laugh and a lament, “No one in this house could dare say I would give that tonight!”
The boys cast out their hopelessness immediately and began to pray.
The house shook, trembled for instant, as though an army of bats had enveloped it and tried to tear it from its foundations. One of the priests bowed even deeper to his rosary. The doctor stepped forward, took the girl’s pulse, listened to her heart, signaled to the team that all was normal; he trembled visibly as he stepped away and prayed.
The mother, who had hitherto been in the corner, wrapped up in her own fears, and sobbing, now fell to her knees on the floor. Her right hand was on her breast, and she was shaking her head through a storm of tears, as though she were making a confession for the very first time.
And then, amidst the shaking, the smoke, the whispers in the walls, there was a voice.
It came low, deep, almost too faint for human ears to hear, as though its speaker had been forced to talk after being chained in the deepest of dungeons, in the darkest of nights. Everyone heard it, and heard the house breathe.
It was a name. It had no cadence of goodness, no heartbeat that identified it as a name that belonged to sweetness, to an innocent soul. No one dared repeat the name.
Only the exorcist dared, and it came through his voice as he began the long prayer that acknowledged the name and the power that knowing the name brought.
The boys listened, heard Fr. Callahan as he kept the mantle of exorcist without wielding it like a robe of silver. They heard his prayers loud and clear, and heard the questions pour forth in a voice that was guided, not imperious; gentle, not groveling.
He commanded the demon, and used its name.
“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, you will tell me why you entered the body of this innocent child of God,” was the order, almost chanted, with the monotony of a father praying over his ailing son.
The girl’s head was bowed, and her body curved into a hunch that brought what seemed to be abnormally long arms all the way down to her legs. One of the priests crossed the living room and came to her side, ready to catch her should the demon try to fold her in half. Landon winced; it had nearly happened years before, but the folding was in the exact opposite direction.
“Her father invited me,” ground out of the silence, from the depths of the girl’s hair, “He wanted someone he could trust to watch over what was his. He said he had every right to her body, so my job was to kill her.”
The house shuddered. In the living room, the priests continued to pray, and the boys continued to document the scene, streaming it live for their colleagues at the Vatican. No one spoke a word, not even miles away in Rome, where Landon knew the priests were praying as they listened.
“In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, I command you to tell me every single detail of how you entered her body,” the priest went on, his hands now fully on the girl’s head, the crucifix resting against her hair.
“He asked for help in making a potion that he could take to her mother,” and here, the girl shook, tried to twist herself into paroxysms of disgust, as though the last word enraged the demon, “And he made it himself.”
“Who did he ask help from?”
“Do not lie.”
The leer seemed to creep past the strands of the girl’s hair. “He asked for me, so I came,” the demon chuckled low, “I brought friends.”
The chuckle uncrumpled itself into a laugh, ringing past the wall of air that seemed to envelope the girl, creeping on spindly legs to the other side of the hall, where the priests were watching and praying.
The exorcist went on, voice never breaking, “How many of your kind did you bring?”
The girl attempted to look up, but kept her head bowed to the floor. Something snapped in her neck as she struggled; the doctor sprang to her side immediately and pushed the girl back into place.
“I brought seven,” the demon giggled, “And they brought their own friends, and those friends brought their own friends, and we all had quite a party together.”
The laugh simmered into a giggle, then a hiss, as though the demon were being raked over coals. Fr. Callahan had put the crucifix square upon the girl’s head again.
“How many were you before we came?” The priest asked, with no compassion.
“Three thousand,” the demon answered, so that the mother gasped, sobbed, then quieted herself immediately with a tighter grasp of her rosary.
“How did those demons leave?”
“You must be speaking of those stupid weaklings-“
“I command you in the name of God the Father Almighty, the creator of earth, of all things on earth, of all things under the earth – tell me how each demon left.”
The demon groaned as the words fell, one by one, matched by a spray of Holy Water from the priest’s bottle.
“They all left in legions when you all began to – do – this,” the demon could barely form the words. The girl’s saliva dripped as the demon hesitated, forming a black puddle on the floor, “They kept leaving because of her. That woman kept driving us out!”
“That woman! That woman we so despise, that one we so hate!”
“Say her name.”
“We hate her. We hate how she crushes and how she burns and how she -”
“Say her name.”
“We hate how she was made greater, greater than all of us, greater than we the beautiful and the mighty and the highest! We hate how he made this mere human, this mere creature, this speck of dust… he made her his Queen!”
“In the name of God the Father Almighty, he alone who creates and is Father of all creation, I command you to say her name.”
“That. Virgin. Mary!”
The girl screamed, growled, bayed as though she had been whipped and branded. And from her mouth issued black smoke, as though something were being burned in her bones.
Fr. Callahan kept the crucifix upon her head, even when the girl looked up and showed only the whites of her eyes.
Again, the doctor was at her side. Pulse was normal, he signaled. She was breathing normally. There was nothing out of the ordinary in this child who was as gray as concrete in the summer sun, whose skin began to smell of rotten eggs, whose eyes showed the palest of whites. And again, he stepped away, trembled, prayed, avoided the growing puddle of dark saliva on the floor as he went.
“How many are you now?” the exorcist asked, voice never losing strength.
“We used to be many!” The being mumbled, over and over, in a shrill whisper.
“How many are you now?”
“Used to be..”
“In the name of our God the Most High, who reigns over all the angels, I command you to tell me how many you are now.”
“There were once so many…”
“I invoke the intercession of the most Blessed Queen of Heaven -”
“Make it stop!” The girl’s voice came through a chorus of wolfish howls and batlike screams, “Stop hurting me!”
The doctor and mother stepped forward, only to be held back by the priest.
“It burns!” The girl screeched, sobbed, wept loud and clear through the shadows that hovered in shrouds of cobwebbed smoke, “Make them stop!! Make him stop!”
The priest closed his eyes tighter, as though doing so would block out the girl’s pleas. She continued to weep, to whinny – and finally to wail with a lilting, lolling whine that unfurled into a response.
“I am all alone.”
The house sighed yet another time, commiserating.
The priest’s voice remained calm, droning, but the boys recognized it for its undertone of prayer. The breakpoint was close, and yet still so far. Bradley took a long breath as he held the recorder up, as though he were about to be pushed beneath rippling, roiling waves.
“In the name of our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ,” Fr. Callahan went on, ignoring the fresh sneer, and the still growing puddle of black saliva at the girl’s feet, “You will reveal when you will leave this body, this creation of Heaven, this vessel that should never be defiled.”
The creature replied with a snort, then a hiss that seemed to issue from the very depths of the girl’s skin. She looked up at the priest, ashen cheeks sprouting veins that ran like rivers of tar, eyes darkened, lips purple and drawn back against yellow teeth. She appeared nothing like her true self to anyone with a weaker soul. The boys knew that the priest could see the humanity beneath the beast, the victim to be helped beyond the veil of evil that groaned and grunted like a cornered dog.
Landon mumbled a prayer as the creature said something in Latin, or Aramaic, or ancient Greek. The priests looked at each other, then at him; no one understood what had been said. Judging from the low conversations over the stream, no one watching remotely from the Vatican had understood it either.
The exorcist continued to pray, this time reciting the Litany of the Saints. He paused, allowing the rest of the house to reply, allowing the responses to wash over the now trembling girl.
“I will leave,” Landon and another priest chorused.
The single word kept coming, slow, resentful. Then –
“Partirò tra cinque ore, all’alba.”
“I will leave within five hours, at dawn,” a priest whispered over the Vatican feed.
Bradley breathed, but never stopped his prayers.
They had reached breakpoint.